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A few magic tricks.

There's a divide between looking at this month's topic--the web's cutting edge--and assembling a list of tech tips that are ostensibly for everyone. I think it can be difficult to look at a community that is as tightly knit as the library community and realize that, like every group, we're going to have standard bell curve distribution for technology adoption within our ranks.

I'm personally on the leading edge of technology adoption when it comes to computers (though I was late to the cell phone party). I work in a region that is pretty clearly on the trailing edge, with a lack of access to technology, broadband, and technology instruction all being constant challenges. This tends to be a plus for me at my job, since there are many opportunities for improvement--for me to work my "magic."


There is also a marketing aspect to a lot of what I do. I find myself saying somewhat defensively, "Well, here's how I use technology; it might work for you." And then I need to have a really killer demonstration of something that 1) solves a problem, 2) does it in a fairly simple or straightforward way, and 3) is repeatable by others.

Here are some examples of things that I teach to librarians and their patrons. I think these can quickly and easily improve people's technological lives, no matter what their skill level.

The Problem: Email Management

Background: Patrons want email or feel that they need email, but they don't know how to manage it. We can sign them up for an account only to find them coming in weeks later with an inbox full of spam, mailing list announcements, forwards from well-meaning friends, and the odd message that they might actually want to read. Just showing them how to read and write email isn't enough. Just demonstrating how to send an attachment is not enough.

We need to show them how to manage email.

The Sell: "How would you like to clean up the clutter in this inbox without deleting any messages?"

The Details: Any email with an identifiable pattern can be filtered. This is simple with all popular webmail applications.

Yahoo! Mail: Options > Mail > Filters > Add

Gmail: Settings > Filters > Create a New Filter, or select "Filter messages like this" when reading a message

Hotmail: Options > More options > Customize your mail > Automatically sort email into folders

The important point is to make sure the email skips the inbox, i.e., goes right to the appropriate folder. This will keep your patron's inbox from being cluttered yet still allow them to receive mailing list mail as well as the ubiquitous family forwards. Special bonus: Show them how to mark spam as spam and remove it forever from their inbox. It's not quite Inbox Zero, but it's a good start.


The Problem: Shopping

Background: Living in a rural area means that purchasing things requires either a lengthy drive or an online purchase. While I'm in favor of buying locally for things such as food and services, I'm also Yankee frugal, so if I'm already driving 40 miles to Staples, I might want to consider online options. Many people who come into the public library and are interacting with computers for the first time have something that they need to purchase. Maybe they heard about a book on NPR and want to buy it if we don't have it. Or maybe they need to make a travel reservation. I tell people that not only is online shopping safe if you take certain precautions, it can also be a money saver at the same time.

The Sell: "How much did you pay for that? Would you like to know how to buy it more cheaply?"

The Details: Comparison shopping is quick and simple using sites such as Google Product Search, dealnews, or to view multiple options on one page. Regarding travel planning, using's sliders to adjust things such as takeoff and landing time or flight length will give patrons a look into what is actually affecting the price. For people who are concerned about online shopping, you can show them reputation sites such as or Get Satisfaction and how to look up businesses on the Better Business Bureau's website. For the final flourish, I often like to point out coupon sites such as that have many different discounts and coupons for people who do shop online.


While I still personally feel that there is great value in patronizing local businesses when appropriate, it's good to know what other options are available to make the best--and cheapest--choices.

The Problem: Maps

Background: The old foldy map is no longer the best way to get a visual idea of how to get from point Ato point B, yet it's still what many people have in the glove compartment, at least out here. However, mapping sites exist online that can not only show you where you are and where you're going, they can show you how to take public transportation there or where to find a burrito nearby. Other sites, such as MapMyWalk and MapMyRide or Gmaps Pedometer, allow you to map your own bike route, for example, and then get information not only about how long the route is but also about how many calories you'd burn cycling it!

The Sell: "Would you like to see a photo of your house from space?"

The Details: I've often found that the simplest tricks are the best ones. Showing someone his or her house from a satellite view or a street view photo of his or her neighborhood can drive home just how useful (and sometimes creepy) the internet and a high-speed connection can be. It also opens the door to talking about neighborhoods and local things, which are favorite topics around here. For people who are more into worldly hobbies, a copy of Google Earth as a companion application to can be a great way to do some sightseeing.

What's Behind the Curtain?

Many of these tricks are not just good because they help people, they're good because they start conversation about deeper topics that help people understand their technological world. How do email providers deal with spam? How does Google have an aerial view of every house in the U.S.? How come's search interface is better than any interface the airlines have? Helping people be curious about their technological world is a great step forward toward helping them understand it. And while we'd like them to keep coming in to our libraries for whatever reason, helping them also learn to solve their own technology-related problems is a librarian's job well done.

Resources Discussed

Email Management

Yahoo! Mail



Inbox Zero


Google Product Search

(Comparison Shopping)

dealnews (Low Price Searching) (Flight Reservations)

Get Satisfaction

Better Business Bureau (Online Coupons)




Gmaps Pedometer

Google Maps Mania

Jessamyn West is a community technology librarian in Randolph, Vt., a moderator at, and the editor of She communicates via
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Author:West, Jessamyn
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2009
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